After restoring historic buildings for more than three decades, Roy Harmon seems a little disillusioned, if not outright confused, with the current state of residential construction.
Most of the buildings he’s worked on are more than a century old, built at a time when carpenters served apprenticeships but building codes did not exist. The only reason the buildings eventually fail is because of neglect, not inherently poor construction.
In contrast, there are a “myriad” of building code requirements these days, but no training requirements to become a home improvement contractor or carpenter.
“As a result, for the past 20+ years, thousands of plastic shacks called homes have been thrown together, by greed-driven developers that seem to dabble in the grey zone just below ‘minimum code requirements,’ ” Harmon writes in his Q&A post. “The untrained, inexperienced workers are all that this process seems to have afforded.”
Harmon wonders whether we’re better served by skilled builders who really know what they’re doing, or a strict code enforced in an age of poorly trained labor and a focus on the bottom line. And in our haste to build green, are we sure that LEED standards and green materials will meet the test of time?
That’s the subject of this week’s Q&A Spotlight.
Building codes are not the issue
Codes are the result of the problem, not its cause, says Tony Olaivar. If it weren’t for building codes, shacks would still be common. Moreover, he adds, “I’d be willing to suggest that the shacks contemporary to your historic homes did not stand the test of time.”
Codes, he adds, are actually improving over time: “Every time a house burns or collapses or an insurance claim is filed, there are statistics gathered. There’s plenty of science that goes into all of it. Don’t get discouraged.”
“All current codes exist because of prior failures and catastrophes (both natural and man-made),” writes Andy Ault. “Codes don’t cause the substandard results, they exist because of them. And with the adoption of new requirements into some of the upcoming 2012 codes (such as air leak testing in the IECC) they are finally moving past simple life safety and actually getting into VERIFIED building performance.”
GBA Senior Editor Martin Holladay makes another point: although it’s easy to take a rosy view of old-time carpentry practices, the longevity of buildings was not always assured. While he’s seen lots of solid historic homes where he lives in Vermont, the opposite also is true. “I’ve also see older homes with failing foundations that lean or bulge and older homes with rotten sills and sagging ridges and undersized rafters that look like a sway-backed old mare,” Holladay writes. “Plenty of builders in the old days didn’t use a span table and cut corners by framing their homes to what they considered were the minimum requirements — and they guessed wrong.”
While imperfect, building codes are intended to eliminate those kinds of problems.
“With rare exception I can’t think of many aspects of building codes that don’t add to the safety or performance of houses, although enforcement is sometimes limited because of budgets of the municipalities,” Allan Edwards says.
Corporate model discourages quality outcome
Old World apprenticeships and craft guilds have been left behind, writes Robert Riversong, as the building industry adopted a standard corporate model for success.
“We quickly became an industrial society with adversarial labor unions to attempt to win a few concessions from the bosses,” he says. “The corporate model of business, with profit as the guiding principle, became the standard for all enterprise — and the easiest way to maximize profit is through mass production and minimizing costs, including both materials and labor.
“Both government regulation and building codes were the reaction to the problem, not the problem itself.”
As Tony Olaivar put it, “all jobs have gone the way of McDonald’s,” with scant training for employees because that made it easier to fire them “at the drop of a hat.”
Riversong sees workers in this system are “just another economic input which can as easily be undercut or outsourced as any resource input.”
To add to these troubles, labor has become so specialized that building projects now require overseers to draw all the players together. Even then, there aren’t many “Master Builders” around who can see a project through from design to finish details.
“When we return to understanding house building as a trade or craft and not a business, we might rediscover some of the pride in workmanship that was once the hallmark of well-crafted and durable architectural design and fabrication,” Riversong says. “And we will need to find ‘profit’ in our sense of satisfaction of a job well done rather than in adding cost that makes such a basic human need as shelter unaffordable for the masses.”
“It’s no small task to try to convince tech savvy kids that it’s desirable (and maybe even ‘cool’) to be a contractor these days,” Ault writes. “So we all have to do our part to support and volunteer for these groups and put our time and effort where our complaints are. “
But aren’t we just building what buyers want?
Joe Wilson recalls visiting a house well along in construction during an open house in his area. The builder was the head of the local building association for years. The house Wilson toured had five bedrooms and three and a half baths and would sell for $430,000 or more.
“I spent some time going through and noting the 2×6, 16-in. on-center traditional (non-OVE) framing, the numerous unplugged gaps at penetrations, the builder grade vinyl windows, the lack of caulk or sealant or gaskets at plates and sills, a ripped piece of housewrap dangling from under the brick,” he writes. “Rolls of glass batt were in the garage, ready to go.”
But three couples he saw at the open house were focused on the square footage, the size of the closets, and the granite, all of which brought a smile to the builder’s face.
Later, the builder said no one had ever inquired about the possibility of building with a more modern approach.
“He didn’t seem greedy, just like he saw his work as a business and that he wasn’t ‘custom,'” Wilson says. “He even offered me the names of three builders he said did custom work. ‘You’ll pay for it, but you’ll get what you want.'”
He wonders whether builders and buyers can be taught to look at houses differently, but he doesn’t seem especially hopeful.
Does the appraisal process contribute to the problem?
Steve El thinks so. Because we’re a mobile society, families have to keep resale in mind, and lending is based on the appraised value of a home.
“This is where a big problem creeps in, in my opinion, and that is the manner in which values are placed on homes is broken,” El says. “Take two next door houses on identical lots, where the houses have the same basic floor plan. One home is built to code minimum and the other is superbly built to a much higher standard.
“For mortgage appraisal purposes, the two homes will appraise almost the same. There will be just enough ‘extra’ tagged on to the superbly built home’s appraised value to make the mortgage appraisal process look — repeat LOOK — legitimate. But in my opinion, the process has nothing to do with value.”
Were buyers better educated to demand value and fix the appraisal process, then builders would be forced to follow suit or be out of a job, he says.
Actually, says Riversong, the appraisal business isn’t broken. Appraisals “very accurately” reflect market value because they’re based on comparable sales in the same area.
“If we want to have the intrinsic qualities of a thing valued then we need to be willing to acknowledge that kind of value in the marketplace,” he says. “Everything in our culture is superficial, shallow, short-term and narrowly-focused. It is our society which is broken. Until we fix that, we cannot expect our valuation formulas to be based on anything other than what we are willing to pay for.”
Our expert’s opinion
Here’s what GBA Technical Director Peter Yost has to say:
I think there are really three separate but related issues in this discussion: codes, performance-based value, and education.
First, a quote from an Environmental Building News feature article entitled “Sustainability and Building Codes” (EBN Vol. 10, No. 9), which I co-authored with David Eisenberg of the Development Center for Appropriate Technology (David is the director of DCAT, the leading organization for green building codes in the U.S.):
“Building codes have long been used by societies to protect individual and general welfare, and to hold practitioners accountable for their work. As long ago as 1750 B.C., Hammurabi, the Babylonian king of Mesopotamia, created his famous Code of Laws covering a wide range of public and private matters. Number 229 of this Code states: “If a builder build a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.” This type of “performance” code must certainly have had an impact on quality of construction, but it very likely stifled innovation!”
We need and benefit from the codes because they, by-and-large, make for safer and better buildings. But I think codes must be performance-based (including third party performance verification) or we get silly prescriptions, such as “warm-in-winter” vapor retarder locations or “seal all holes” for air tightness.
And we not only need performance in the codes, we need it in all aspects of the building industry; from design to construction to appraisal to sales. The single most significant purchase almost all of us make in our lives is a home, and yet most of us do NOT approach the purchase as a performance-based value proposition. That is just crazy, because we do performance-based purchasing for other large, long-lived products such as cars, and computers, and appliances, why not homes?
And the need for education of how buildings really work is just as pervasive. We are asking more of our homes, but not asking more of all those who touch them—architects, builders, code officials, realtors, and homeowners. Every sector needs building science education about how buildings work; the codes can’t and were never meant do it on their own.